School focus: Sheffield Children’s Centre

For many parents of children with special educational needs and disabilities the period before, during and after diagnosis can be difficult and challenging.

By Alana Roberts
Thursday, 02 May, 2019, 08:41
Pictured is Laura Weightman working in the SEND area.

That is something pre-school managers Terasa D’Aquila and Alison Cole know all too well being parents of children with autism.

The pair work at The Sheffield Children’s Centre, on Shoreham Street, which provides access to a range of support for children, young people and their families.

Pictured is Sara Lavaggi working in the SEND area.

Terasa, a teacher and psychologist, felt there was a clear lack of services for children with special educational needs and disability (SEND) and the services which were available were almost impossible to access – a view also shared by Alison.

Alison said many children are now receiving a diagnosis of autism at a much younger age and there is a focus on early intervention – yet, once a diagnosis is given, it is clear early intervention is virtually non-existent.

“We are always told that early intervention is key. Well it is vital that children get the support they need at pre-school to set them up for the future,” she added.

The duo are spearheading a new project with their team, after joining forces with the Sheffield Centre of Education to open a pre-school and support group for SEND children, primarily focusing on those with profound speech and language and social interaction difficulties, autism diagnosis, muscle and co-ordination difficulties.

Pictured is Sara Lavaggi working with Charlie Cole, four, in the SEND area.

Terasa said: “We both understand first hand the struggles that parents go through. We had both been privately paying for therapists for our children and thought ‘this is crazy’, what we want is a play group where we can pool resources.

“We are offering small group sessions and one to one to make the children school ready and will match children’s abilities so they’ve got friends they can grow with.”

Alison said she has seen a remarkable improvement in her son Charlie’s difficulties since starting the pre-school. He now makes friends, his social interaction has improved and he is a much happier and confident little boy.

This effect has been across the board with some of the children who were non-verbal beginning to use single words and other communication methods in a short space of time.

Pictuerd is Carla Cabral, two, at the celebration party at the Sheffield Children's Centre

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Other children’s joint attention, focus, gross and fine motor skills, muscle tone and independence has greatly improved further strengthening the ideology behind the pre-school.

Terasa and Alison will be providing free of charge workshops to share their knowledge, techniques, strategies and interventions to parents and professionals working with children with SEND.

They are also keen to work on providing the local and wider community with an online platform in which they can support parents and professionals through step by step video therapy sessions and already have a waiting list for children wanting to join the group.

Wendy Sweeny, whose two-year-old son James uses the new SEND centre, said: “James started showing signs of autism in March 2018 and since then our family have been through every emotion and ‘What if?’ question possible.

Pictured is Alison Firth in the SEND area.

“James used to speak and for us that really has been the hardest part. Being able to meet people and be a part of a group that understands what it is like to parent and love a child like our son James and gets it and wants to help is huge.

“James is non-verbal but these sessions have helped us massively in that he can now sit in a room with others and not need to leave immediately.

“He has become calmer, we have learned what some of his triggers are and how to help him with his sensory seeking.

“We are only at the very beginning with James with his diagnosis still being written up as ASD but with help, support and love of people like Terasa and the team we now allow ourselves to feel hopeful once more and positive about our little man and no just fear of the unknown.”

Donna Fyfe's five-year-old son James also uses the facilities. She said: “Sadly, we seem to be in a position where children with autism and their carers are having to wait an exceptionally long time for diagnosis, advice and support from professionals.

“Every step seems to be a battle and at the heart of it are these children that are being failed. My five-year-old son has been waiting for nine months for an assessment and is still on the waiting list.

“I am so grateful that Terasa, Alison and the team at The Sheffield Centre of Education are providing us with expert advice from speech and language therapists and occupational therapists. This really is a lifeline for children and carers that are in desperate need of support.”

Currently there are 60 free workshop places offering parents support from therapists. Visit www.sheffieldcentreofeducation.com for details.